The old Gorkha Station of Darjeeling enchanted Lloyd and Grant, British officers, in 1829. By 1835 it had become a British sanatorium after the Maharajah of Sikkim had gifted it to Governor-General Bentinck "out of friendship". Now a mellow century and a half years old, Darjeeling, Queen of the hill Stations, entices thousands to its fairy tale environs and leaves no one discontented.
Once you leave the plains and start climbinq up and you see the lofty green promontories ahead of you. you know that you have entered a different domain altogether. Brilliant red rhododendrons, charming white magnolias and majestic pines welcome you to the land of Darjeeling. And all the while the slopes gently flow down in waves and waves of green tea-bushes. All around you are-lonely vales and dales, rushing streams and gasping gorges, and tiny lakes which reflect the turquoise of the sky. An intoxicating experience, to be cherished forever.
You have the choice of travelling uphill by motor car or by the famous toy-train. The train huffs and puffs its way up the steep incline without the aid of cog-wheels. Completed in 1881 by Franklin Prestage, the lilliputian locomotives and cabins haul themselves through perhaps the most romantic railroad in the world. Pendant creepers and dark green ferns, bamboos with feathery crests, golden green alpine shrubs and sweeping scenes of the extensive plains way down below can be seen. The train exerts its way up to Ghoom, the highest point on the railline at 7407 feet. It then glides down to Darjeeling town, first traversing the Batasia Loop, an engineering marvel, from where the visitor gets the first indelible view of the township. Elegant, enduring, the Queen stands, her gaze fixed on the shimmering white of the Kangchendzonga which looms impressively on the horizon.
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Darjeeling perches among the clouds at 7000 ft above the sea. It hugs the crests and slopes of a long ridge. The town's name, is now generally accepted as being derived from "Dorje Ling" - abode of the Thunderbolt originally a name attached to a monastery on Observatory Hill. Around this hub grew the town, now a bustling beehive, of colour and culture, beauty and gaiety.
A visit to Darjeeling should be complemented by a visit to Kalimpong. Though these hill towns are basically the same, their markets frequented by cheerful hill people dressed in local finery, their roads and lanes lined by shops and stalls which look like Dickensian Curiosity shops, yet Kalimpong has its own charm. More on Kalimpong.
Mirik-A New Hill Resort
At an eminently approachable distance from Darjeeling (49 km), Siliguri 52 km) and Kurseong (46 km) lies the beautiful hill station of Mirik. The little town embraces the Mirik Spur and has an unpretentious air.
Dominating the town is a sparkling lake, placid beneath a thousand cryptomerias, inviting you to take a ride in one of the brightly coloured boats.
Lunch and snacks can be had from the Day Centre and you can sit amidst the tranquiltiy of a lake-side garden and munch away in contentment.
Beautiful white orchids grew in abundance at this place, giving it its name 'Karsan Rup' - place of white flowers - now Kurseong. Approximately halfway between the plains and Darjeeliiig, Kurseong has its own standing as a hill station.
Kurseong is at an elevation of 4864 ft. and has a congenial atmosphere which endears it to many visitors wary of the severe winters of Darjeeling. As the cheerful people bustle about, you cannot help but notice the homely ambience of the place. Kurseong offers a wide range of accommodation facilities including the Kurseong Tourist Centre and the Snow View Youth Hostel.
Views of both the mountains and the plains may be seen to advantage from Kuresong. A kilometre's ascent takes one to the top of Eagle's Crag where a well-developed tourist complex is situtated. From the garden there, the impassive face of Kangchengzonga can be seen along with other peaks. You also see the striking spectacle of the hills suddenly flattening out to form the extensive plains of North Bengal. A view from Constantia corroborates your experience. All around are the ubiquitous tea bushes. Nearby is Castleton Tea Estate, whose tea holds the record price of Rs. 2700 per kg. A climb to Dowhill is a must. The forest Museum there, the Deer Park and the water reservoir, all set amid moss-laden conifers is worth a visit.
Flora & Fauna
Darjeelinq is a veritable paradise for those who take delight in observing nature at close range. Its rich forests provide shelter and breeding ground for a plethora of Himalayan animals and plants.
The Himalayan Newt, a rare species of salamanders, has chosen the Jorepokhari lake as a mating place. Every rainy season hundreds of these newts gather there to breed. The muntjac (barking deer), civet cats, the Himalayan Black bear, and the Snow Leopard are some of the natives of this region. In Darjeeling, you see beautiful butterflies everywhere for there can be found 600 species of these here. High altitude pheasants and birds also abound.
There is nothing so refreshing to see perhaps, than a cluster of blood-red rhododendrons. There are 139 species of these. Stately magnolia trees bloom with fragrant white, pink and magenta flowers while delicate orchids in all shades of the spectrum add an exotic touch. A rather recent addition to Darjeeling's botanical wealth. is ginseng, the well known stimulant.
Places Of Interest
Within walking distance from the Mail, the Natural History Museum beckons you to see the fine exhibition of Himalayan animals, reptiles, birds and insects which have been collected from around the district. It also houses a collection of butterflies; Darjeering boasts of being home to 600 species of these winged dryads.
The Lloyd Botanic Garden, just below the market place, is named after William Lloyd who donated the site in 1878. Among verdant lawns and grassy slopes you can see the pride of alpine flora and enjoy the haunting hues of innumerable orchids.
As for Himalayan fauna, there is no better place than the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park. About two kilometres from the market place, it is a high altitude park and also the only centre in India for the breeding of the rare Snow Leopard. Its attractions include Ussurian tigers and the Himalayan Black bear as also beautiful Himalayan birds.
Neighbouring the zoo is the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, established in the wake of the conquest of Everest. Opened in 1954, the institute offers mountaineering and adventure courses. Tenzing Norgay was Director and Advisor of this Institute till his death. The Everest Museum attached to the Institute is interesting.
Singalila Range Trek
A kilometre from the zoo brings you to the Darjeeling Rangit Valley Ropeway, one of the longest in Asia. A thrilling ride, high over the tea bushes and stared at by the Kangchendzonga takes you to the river valley of Rangit, a fishing spot.
A further two kilometres will bring you to the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre. This was established in 1959 to help in the rehabilitation of Tibetan refugees. It is a major centre for the production of excellent Tibetan crafts like carpets, woodwork, leather work etc.
Just below the railway station is the Dhirdham temple, built along the lines of the famous Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Ghoom is eight kilometres from the town. Its hillock is dominated by the famous Yiga Choeling Monastery which has 15 images of the Maitreya Buddha as well as a collection of Buddhist scholastic texts.
A steep ride of 5km from Ghoom takes you to Tigerhill, now synonymous with the beauty of the sunrise over the Himalayas. The summit of Everest can be espied and in the early morning dew as the hesitant rays paint Everest, Kangchenzonga, Kabru, Jannu and the lesser peaks in pale gold, you know that your trip has been worth the while.
Rangit River Rafting
The swift water of the Rangit flow over rocks and crags, turbulent and delirious. Flanked on both the sides by steep cliffs and lush green forests, the river rages on, dissipating its energy only when it reaches the plains. This churning, frothing water is just perfect for white water rafting. It's a struggle with elemental forces, a thrilling adventure which allows you to experience the fury of himalayan rivers. And later as you rest, all passions spent, you will want to re-live the experience over and over again.
Information: Courtesy Government of India
Editor: Romola Butalia   (c) India Travelogue. All rights reserved.